It’s been a while since I’ve written about what I believe in, and I think this is a good time to share that again.
I am not religious. I don’t believe my purpose is ordained by any higher power. But like all of us, I do seek purpose, and many years of that search, trying to find what’s most important to me, has led me to believe the most important thing I can do is care for those around me: my friends, community, city, even species – and the ecosystem we all live in and depend on. The most important purpose I can imagine is to help us survive sustainably within that ecosystem.
To do that, we know we need to reduce, or even eliminate, our technology’s climate changing emissions. We know energy will continue to become more scarce and expensive in our future. And we know our transportation system has been contributing to social, public health and even economic problems. There are huge tasks ahead of our generation and those that come after it, tasks I want to do my best to help us accomplish.
I have little influence on the whole planet. I do have some power here, though, so the biggest impact I can have today is to help our city and region become sustainable. Because we have great renewable energy resources here already, our fastest path to sustainability starts in building a transportation system that doesn’t burn fossil fuels – but there are other requirements as well to really make that system sustainable. It must be resilient in the face of potentially extreme weather events and scarce resources. It must foster better social health – helping us build places where people can make connections with each other, find and create community, and organize to improve their lives. And it must have longevity; it must be reliable and maintainable as it ages and changes happen around it.
These are hard problems. They don’t usually come down to single, simple measurements, like “how many dollars per passenger mile traveled will this system cost next year” – they’re far more complicated. To solve them, we have to think about trends on a horizon of many decades or even centuries, and we need to think very holistically about the impacts of the infrastructure we build.
We’re not going to solve, or even approach, all of these problems perfectly. Transit agencies don’t have great incentives for good urban design or integration with other uses. Politicians don’t have great incentives to think long term. Activists don’t have great incentives to push projects to completion when they think there might be something better down the road. We’ve all trained ourselves to do and think about things in certain ways, and one of the hardest things – and most useful things – we can do is to recognize this and catch ourselves when we’re making choices that don’t fit with our values.
I think it’s important to use those values to have a strong vision of a future I want to live in. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of this year’s ballot measures or legislative goals and forget that all the things we work on today are stepping stones to something bigger.
My vision of the future has subways in it. It has streetcars in it, and regional and high speed rail connecting every city. It has narrower streets, wider sidewalks and cycletracks. It has cars and trucks, but they’re electric, and it’s easy to get around without one, so most people don’t own them. It has lots more density in the city, neighborhoods with strong community, and well protected wilderness and farmland. And it has things that I don’t write about here at all, like entirely renewable energy on a great grid, almost no packaging, disposable goods, or waste, much more locally grown food, much, much more affordable housing, far better healthcare, robust services for those who can’t take care of themselves, fantastic schools with small classes and healthy food, great childcare, well maintained parks, and support for art, small businesses, and creative innovation. The future I want to live in would always be growing and changing in ways I can’t predict and don’t want to limit. The people there are healthy, have community, and opportunities to explore and share ideas, learn and create.
When I see projects like Link, and even the rapid streetcars in the Transit Master Plan, I see stepping stones on the path to that future. I see projects with impacts greater than just moving people as cheaply as possible tomorrow, but also on all these other things we need – better bicycle infrastructure, better streets and sidewalks, more small business opportunities and stronger community. I see chances to get to that vision faster, by getting funding from outside our region. I also see politicians thinking longer term, more about the needs of the people they represent than about the politics of what they need today. Those are the values I’m looking for in who I support.
When we can place a stepping stone and take a step toward that future, we do best for ourselves by supporting it wholeheartedly. By seizing it, we help to grow those who are thinking about more than just themselves. We show other policymakers opportunities for our support, and we embolden those around us to join us, to feel success. We work toward better lives for ourselves and for those who come after us.
If we react with fear and doubt, if we fail to support those who are making these choices that match our values, we do worse than stepping forward – we uproot seedlings we worked to plant. We make it harder for our politicians to fight for good policies by making them unsure they’ll be supported. And that negativity repels our allies, making it harder to organize next time. We make accomplishing that vision more difficult for ourselves.
Do you share these values? Does your vision of our future sound like I describe? If so, try to think about where your energy goes in discussions here. Are you helping us take steps on this path? Do the fights you’re having help build our community, or do they split us, distract, or slow us down? If we all think about how our actions fit with our values more often, we can be more effective in building a better future.